So…it’s April and that is Autism Awareness month. Perhaps you are aware that autism exists? Success! But actually no, not success because there are a lot of things about being autistic that still suck and very few of them are autism itself, they are mostly trying to exist as autistic in a neurotypical world. For this month of Autism Awareness I am going to devote some space on the blog to autism, not because I am an expert [or even that I have spent that much time being immersed in the autistic community] but because I am actually autistic and want to think through some of what that means in front of other people for both their education and for mine.
The use of #actuallyautistic here is important. During this month if you absorb nothing else that I say about autism please learn that it is important to listen to autistic people about their needs and wishes before you listen to non-autistic people [who may or may not mean well] about the needs and wishes of autistic people. For instance, some people are all about “person first” terminology related to autism and think you should say “person with autism” instead of “autistic person.” Meh. We don’t say “person who is of European dissent,” we say “white people.” And we don’t say “person who has sex with members of the ‘opposite’ gender” we say “straight” or “straight person” and don’t worry about whether or not the person to whom we are referring understands that they are a noun before they are an adjective. Why on earth would we construct a ludicrous sentence so that we can perform stating that a person is a person? Better to construct a sentence that makes sense and treat autistic people like people.
Also, autistic people overwhelmingly prefer “autistic” to “person with autism.” What people want to be called is more important than what other people want to call them. This is why I say “Co-lor-a-do” with a short ‘a’ instead of “Co-lor-ah-do” with a long ‘a’ [it’s what Coloradans say]. This is also why everyone should shut up about transgender pronouns and just use the ones trans people want applied to them. Some things are about what individuals want and not what is convenient or easy or meaningful for anyone else. If you are committed to treating autistic people with the respect that all people deserve then referring to them how they want and learning about their experience from their point of view is preferred. Therefore, should you find yourself reading other things about autism in April try to select things written by people who are #actuallyautistic
If you are not autistic [and even if you are] autism is probably not what you think it is, I know this because for a long time I was really confused about it myself. This was also before I knew that I was autistic, but I think some part of me knew that there was something that I was even if I didn’t have the proper name for it.
Autism is a neurodivergence, a difference in how minds work, relative to how normative or neurotypical minds work. This is sort of a yucky definition because it assumes norms, but let’s just pretend those are about statistics only for our purposes here. Remember in grade school when they told us that everyone is different and that is normal? Different like that, different like natural variation among individuals is natural. Most of the people who said “everyone is different” did not have broad enough horizons to understand how different we can be from each other, but that doesn’t make the point moot. The more important point is to not have a narrow definition of what being a human is or a sense that anyone who is too far off from that is diseased or deviant or disordered. From the perspective of neurodivergence, what is possible for human minds is the full range of what human minds do. It’s a descriptive definition of mind, not a prescriptive definition. This is important for lots of other “differences” besides just minds [things like genders and races and abilities].
Culturally, we are still grappling with how a person can be “different” if they are not default, how far they can be from “normal” without being wrong. We don’t understand all the time that our definitions of “normal” and “default” are based on taking a certain type of person [those protestant, white, cishet dudes] and extrapolating their essential qualities to others. The problem was always that sort of thinking, not the “epidemic” of autistic or gay or trans people. I think we are at this time in history much better at seeing and saying that something is different and wanting to believe that is ok, but still not knowing how to live that ok-ness. Cultural change is very uneven.
Therefore, autism is not truly something wrong that needs to be cured because people “have” it. It is instead more like race or gender, something that is baked in to a person and informs their experience. Much as I would like to “cure” certain types of masculinity, just as an example, I am not foolish enough to think that I can just scrape it off like frosting. Likewise curing autism doesn’t make much sense: it isn’t the flu. I do not want to be neurotypical because then I would not be myself, I do however, want to more easily exist in a world that doesn’t seem to understand that it was designed for the neurotypical as default humans. We could live in a world that makes some space for autistic people to live in it, but I feel it is going to take a very long time indeed since we are still abysmal at making the world more accommodating for women and people of color and LGBTQ+ people. Not that I happen to think that there is some schedule of cultural change and autistic people are last. I think we can make things better for everyone all at the same time [and in fact we will need to], but I recognize that default humans are very fatigued by having to consider people different from themselves and [for reasons I do not really understand] that perceived requirement to consider others is more important than, like, being othered.
So rather than have a month of Autism Awareness, I think it would be better to have a month of Autism Acceptance.
Step One: admit there are autistic people [awareness]
Step Two: recognize we have a right to exist without contorting ourselves into neurotypical boxes or needing to be “cured”
Step Three: make space in the world for autistic boxes to be legitimate boxes.
During this month of Autism Acceptance, I will be doing my part to help folks understand Step 2 so that we can all do a better job of Step 3. Stay tuned…